Sixty years ago, a truck of dynamite exploded after the flames from the Gerretsen Building Supply Company fire spread to it — causing a massive explosion that erupted in flames, sent earthquake-like tremors nearly 17 miles and broke windows within nine miles.
Patrick O’Brien, 87, was one of the firefighters that fought the aftermath of the blast that shook the town of Roseburg.
O’Brien, nearly 28 at the time, had worked for the Roseburg Fire Department for about seven months and was off duty that night. The boom of the blast woke him up.
“I actually heard it. At that time they had a siren that you could hear throughout all of the town for calling for a major fire to call in the off-duty people,” O’Brien said. “That thing — they didn’t need the siren because you could feel it. Hear it and feel it.”
O’Brien said he immediately got dressed and headed to the fire station. He lived in west Roseburg at the time and getting into town took much longer than normal.
“We couldn’t get across the tracks. Had to go through the VA hospital to Garden Valley, Garden Valley to Stephens. I think I wound up getting about two blocks from the station from where I had to park. It took quite awhile,” O’Brien said.
Although it was 1 a.m., traffic into town was clogged with people who wanted to watch the fire, he said.
“You could see the fire pretty much all over, at least a reflection of the fire in the sky,” O’Brien said. “It was kind of amazing how much damage it had done.”
When he finally made it to the fire department, he was directed to respond to different fires that the blast caused.
He fought the flames at the flour mill on Pine Street before the roof started to collapse, he said.
The fire was confined at 2:15 a.m. and controlled by 3 a.m. according to the Roseburg, Oregon Fire, Explosion and Conflagration report. However, emergency responders had to stay out and deal with the wreckage.
“We stayed up till probably 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. We got relieved for a few hours, got cleaned up, changed clothes and back in it,” O’Brien said.
The fire station was damaged in the blast, so they had to relocate afterwards.
“It changed a lot of things, it changed transportation of dynamite, explosives, laws that made cities had to have routes through their towns,” O’Brien said. “It changed a lot nationwide, not just here.”
Dale Greenley from the Douglas County Historical Society was 12 at the time of the blast and remembers it well. He interviewed O’Brien for the Umpqua Trapper.
“I remember that there’s people running around in nightgowns and pajamas and panic, and my dad — he’d been a combat veteran in World War II — he’s standing on the porch looking at the fire across there and said, ‘You know, if the Russians did have an atomic bomb, they sure wouldn’t have wasted it on Roseburg,’” Greenley said.